The National Reading Panel (2000), Graves, Marzano & Pickering, Stahl & Fairbanks, Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, Hiebert, Nagy, Biemiller, Baumann, and Ebbers are among many who have studied vocabulary instruction and learning. Their extensive research and meta-analyses have yielded characteristics of the most effective vocabulary instruction. While certainly, the research must continue, here's a summary of what we can support with evidence right now.

Characteristics of Effective Vocabulary Instruction

  • Explicit instruction of important vocabulary terms and concepts is effective.
  • Vocabulary instruction should focus on critical words.
  • Effective vocabulary instruction involves the gradual shaping of word meanings through multiple exposures.
  • Active engagement improves learning (including nonlinguistic representation, student discussion, and word play).
  • Effective vocabulary instruction does not rely on definitions.
  • Teaching word structure (morphemic analysis) enhances understanding and aids transfer.
  • Different types of words require different types of instruction.

Word Selection

The filters for effective word selection are largely determined by your purpose. Nagy and Hiebert (2007, presentation notes, available suggest these purposes:
  • to understand a specific text better
  • to learn an specific concept and its label
  • to improve comprehension of texts in general
  • to increase one's understanding of some aspect of generative word knowledge (e.g., conceptual category, suffixation)
  • to improve writing

Once we clearly understand our purpose, we can use a few applicable filters to help focus our instructional time and energy on the words that will serve students effectively and efficiently.

  • familiarity, prior word knowledge (how much students already know)
  • frequency (rate of occurrence) and distribution (range of use across multiple domains)
  • importance (e.g., to comprehension of essential text, to general comprehension, to future academic success in specific discipline)
  • utility (e.g. useful for students and for instructional potential in terms of its relevancy across disciplines, generativity, morphology, semantic-relatedness)
  • conceptual difficulty (based on Nagy, Anderson, & Herman, 1987 in Hiebert, 2008 presentation)
    • known concept that can be expressed with a one-word synonym
    • known concept that can be expressed with a familiar phrase
    • unknown concept that can be learned from available experiences and information
    • unknown concept requiring learning of new factual information or a related system of concepts

Vocabulary Instruction Routines

The following routines are quite similar and each is consistent with the characteristics of effective vocabulary instruction. They all include three basic, but essential, components in the introduction of new words:

  1. Student-Friendly Definitions or Explanations

  2. Student-Friendly (Teacher-Created) Contexts (examples and non-examples)

  3. Students Actively Engaged with the New Words (immediately and over time)

Context-Relationship Procedure (based on Graves, 2006)
--usually for teaching new words for familiar/known concepts
  1. Create a brief paragraph that uses the target word three or four times and in doing so gives the meaning of the word.
  2. Follow the paragraph with a multiple-choice item that checks students' understanding of the word.
  3. Show the paragraph, read it aloud, and read the multiple-choice options.
  4. Pause to give students a moment to answer the item, provide the correct answer, and discuss the word including any questions that arise.

Vocabulary Instructional Routine (Archer & Hughes, Explicit Instruction, 2011)
--usually for teaching new words for familiar/known concepts
  • Watch Anita Archer demonstrate this routine with students: .
    • Elementary Video #2 (Grade 2)
    • Elementary Video #7 (Grade K)
    • Secondary Video #3 (Grade 6, math)

  1. Introduce the word. (Display, rehearse pronunciation and syllabication.)
  2. Present a student-friendly explanation that emphasizes critical attributes of word meaning.
  3. Illustrate the word with examples (i.e. concrete examples, visual representations, verbal examples) and non-examples.
  4. Check for understanding.
  5. Review a group of words. (This should continue to happen over time.)

Building Academic Vocabulary: Six-Step Process (Marzano, 2004)
--usually for teaching new words for familiar or unfamiliar concepts, especially general academic and content-specific terms

  1. The teacher provides a description, explanation, or example of the new term.
  2. Students restate the explanation of the new term in their own words.
  3. Students create a nonlinguistic representation of the term.
  4. Students periodically do activities that help them add to their knowledge of previously taught vocabulary terms.
  5. Periodically, students are asked to discuss previously taught terms with one another.
  6. Periodically, students are involved in games that allow them to play with the terms.

Rich Instruction (based on Beck, 2002; McKeown & Beck, 2004; Beck, 2008)
--usually for teaching new words for familiar concepts

  1. Contextualize words: introduce new words in a particular context.
  2. Provide student friendly explanations
    • Use a complete sentence that includes the target word framed with words such as someone who, something, if, and you.
  3. Provide an additional context for the word.
  4. Provide opportunities for students to actively process word meanings.
    • Engage students in thinking about new information by combining it with known information.
    • Ask questions connecting two target words that require students to explain whether a connection could exist.
  5. Provide for a high frequency of encounters over time.
    • Include a variety of context and situations that encourage student processing.
    • Continue over several days (e.g., 5-day cycle) and beyond.

Vocabulary Routine using Structured Academic Language